Tag Archives: Serena

010.016

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Staring into Arachne’s vacant black eyes frosted over Eva’s heart.

Arachne’s eyes absorbed light. There was no shiny gloss, no light from within. It was like staring into the back of her skull if she had no brain or other organs behind her carapace. Her mouth hung open, slack. No wide grin filled with pearly teeth, no displeased frown. Just a vacant stare.

“Arachne,” Eva said, voice barely audible even to herself in the roaring winds around the ritual circle. She turned slowly, no longer standing with her body half twisted. Vektul shouted something at her and someone else was screaming, but she barely heard them. “Arachne!”

The spider-demon failed to react. Her eyes didn’t light up. Her jaw remained slack.

The red lines on the floor of the ritual circle flashed a bright white for just a moment before the red glow rose into the air. A laser show started swirling around Eva. Yet she couldn’t take her eyes off Arachne to properly stare at the patterns. Even when boiling sweat beaded up on her skin, she didn’t take her eyes off Arachne.

Watching Arachne completely fail to react to anything around her had Eva feeling queasy. Her vision swam, jittering around. Which was probably not something caused by the effects of the ritual.

Before even starting, she had suspected things about the ritual. Vektul being a vessel for Void being one. With herself in the center point, however, Eva had entertained the idea that she might be a vessel. Or, failing that, have something happen to her. Hopefully something temporary.

But Arachne?

Eva tried to move forwards, to reach out and grab Arachne’s shoulders to shake her back to her senses. Her foot caught. It stuck flat to the ground. Even with her legs being what they were, she couldn’t lift her foot.

She finally tore her eyes from Arachne to find out just what had caught her foot.

At first, nothing looked wrong. She didn’t wear shoes, so her feet were always the shiny black of Arachne’s chitin. It took her a moment to realize that the shiny black covering her legs was not chitin. A thick layer of fluid blood ran over her feet, pooling on the ground. Not a single drop actually left the ring she was standing within. As Eva continued to stare in a daze, she realized that the blood was spreading, seeping from her pores. It coated over the fabric of her normally gray skirt, turning it as shiny and smooth as her legs while leaving it free to whip about in the winds.

Before long, it had spread up over her chest, arms, and even her neck and head.

Despite all the blood covering her, a quick check showed that none of it was hers. Eva’s body had just as much blood in it as it normally did. Minus what she had spent to bind the nun that had attacked. Which meant that it was happening again. Not to the same degree as when Arachne had been stabbed by the hunter’s sword. That had turned a fairly sizable section of the plaza between the dormitories into a pool of blood.

This was far less widespread. More subdued. But then, Eva’s emotions were more subdued as well. She wasn’t the blazing demon of vengeance that she had felt like while fighting the armored hunter.

Now aware of what was wrong, Eva tried to move forward again. Except her foot still didn’t move. The blood locked it in place. All despite the liquid flowing and running up and down her body. It wasn’t like she had hardened it into a solid crystal.

A quick mental command spread the blood away from her body. It obeyed immediately, just as if she had touched it to her dagger. But as it moved from her body and into the rest of the circle, it vanished. Evaporated. More bled from her skin—even from her carapace, which lacked pores of any kind. Commanding it only a short distance away didn’t work either. The second her command was carried out, it stretched back long tendrils that latched onto her body. From there, it pulled back into one contiguous mass that spread over her.

Eva just about tried obliterating the entire mass with a clap of her hands when she realized just how foolish she was being.

She could teleport.

A simple teleport would leave the sticky mass of blood behind. Even if more leaked from her skin, it wouldn’t matter. She would have moved.

Eva blinked, aiming straight for Arachne.

Only to find herself right where she started, still encased in blood. It wasn’t like the few times when she had tried to teleport while wards were up. There was no metaphorical brick wall that she slammed her head into. Just a disappear and reappear similar to when she was first learning how to blink.

She tried again and a third time to the same result.

As she failed over and over again, the laser show above the circle whipped around. One of the beams of light struck Arachne dead in the back. Arachne stumbled forwards, almost toppling straight to the ground. Her catching herself before falling bubbled up hope in Eva’s heart.

Until she realized that Arachne had not caught herself.

Another two of the red lasers struck her in either shoulder, propping Arachne up. A third pressed into her lolling head, right between her eight eyes. It tipped her head back until she was looking straight up into the void.

A thin tendril of the darkness stretched down in a funnel shape directly above Arachne. It reached down with the lethargy of frozen honey. Eva didn’t even notice it at first. Not until it crossed over some of the red beams of light that were still flying about overhead. The black funnel against the black sky was simply impossible to distinguish without the light for contrast.

The funnel dipped low enough to brush against Arachne’s slack lips. There was an almost intelligent hesitation behind its movements before it dove straight into her mouth. Her carapace cracked immediately. Thin lines spread out from her lips across her face in a spider web pattern. No blood dripped from the cracks. Not to Eva’s sight nor to her sense of blood. But a dark fog churned and billowed beneath the chitinous shards.

Cracks continued to spread, not stopping at her face. Each of the many tendrils hanging off the back of her head bulged before cracking and releasing the dark clouds. Her neck, shoulders, arms, fingers, breasts, navel, legs, and feet quickly followed as the carapace failed to contain the onrushing darkness.

As the darkness forced its way into her body, it started to vanish from around the ritual circle. A dark curtain drew up slow and steady. Bright light peeked through the thin empty space at the very horizon. Hints of the surrounding forest, the base of trees and some brush, still remained outside their bubble of darkness. Though the curtain rose so slowly that only a hand-span of space had moved at the edge of the ring, the funnel into Arachne’s mouth was picking up speed.

Her body couldn’t contain the onrushing darkness. More and more cracks in her carapace appeared as her body started to grow in size. Smoke flowed from the cracks—enough to almost completely obscure Arachne’s actual body. But Eva could still hear every snap of the exoskeleton above the roaring wind.

The smoke flowed down to her dangling feet where, in some kind of cruel mirror of Eva’s blood, it pooled around the ground before thinning out and disappearing into the rest of the air.

Arachne had always been tall. Even while in her most humanoid form, she towered over everyone. Well, everyone human. Ylva had her beat by almost a head and a half. But not for long. Despite the weird angle the beams of light held her at, Eva could see her growing. And not just taller. Her feet, even obscured by smoke, were half-again as large as they had been. The rest of her was scaling to match. The cracked tips of her fingers occasionally came into sight through the fog of smoke. They weren’t so thin and needle-like anymore.

Eva tried to blink forwards again. She tried to move. Thrashing around strained her muscles and bones, but she continued trying. She tried to send the blood away, to obliterate it, to clear it away from her feet and knees just enough for her to move, to harden it with joints that would allow her to move, to do anything that would allow her to move closer to Arachne. To perhaps offer her friend some comfort if she could not stop the darkness.

But it was all for naught. She stayed where she was despite her best attempts otherwise. Even a full teleport to the gate room back in the Rickenbacker dormitory building failed to do anything other than leave her rooted in place. There was enough blood coating her that she couldn’t even turn her head to look away any longer.

The others weren’t faring well anymore. The humans hadn’t been anyway, but now, even the demons were being brought to their knees. A few, Catherine and Genoa notably, had managed to partially resist. Catherine was still on her feet, the one exception to those kneeling around Eva, though Eva could see the effort she was putting into staying that way. Her eyes danced over every little thing, trying to take in the sight of the ritual. Eva couldn’t actually see Genoa with her own eyes. However, she could sense the blood rushing to her muscles as she strained against whatever force was keeping everyone pressed against the ground. Everyone with the exception of Eva, Vektul, Catherine, and Arachne.

With Arachne being forced to consume and contain the black void and Eva being coated in blood, entirely unable to move, she wouldn’t say that they had been spared. Vektul, maybe. He stood perfectly still just as he had been when Eva had still faced him. Unable to turn to look at him, he could be covered in blood as she was.

Eva doubted it. Blood was her thing.

Still, he may have been immobilized using some other method. If he needed it. Of everyone present, he was the one who ordered Saija to stand still. He wouldn’t move on his own.

Juliana was out of range, being out of the circle. She, Serena, and the nun were likely the only ones who could move properly. Assuming the entire world wasn’t kneeling at the moment, which, now that Eva thought about it, was a very real possibility. Yet Juliana had Zagan inside her. Unless he had taken away her power, she should be able to do something.

Eva actually hoped she wouldn’t. At this point, interrupting the ritual could be disastrous. Maybe she could make it so that it had never happened, but there was no guarantee that everything would be alright. Void had to put Arachne back to her proper state. If Juliana stopped the ritual, Arachne could wind up a broken mess. Or worse. And then, it was doubtful that anybody would be willing to try the ritual a second time. Not with what had happened, everybody being forced to the ground and Arachne being torn apart. Maybe Juliana could modify everyone’s memory. Frankly, Eva would need her own memory modified in order to try again.

Which had Eva wondering if they had tried before. Juliana had looked fairly solemn as she walked off to stand by the nun. Just how powerful were Zagan’s abilities? Could she snap her fingers and reset the entire day back to the beginning? Eva couldn’t even imagine the kind of cosmological problems that would pose. It would essentially have to reset the entire universe.

But her delirious mind was likely overthinking a problem that might have a much simpler solution.

The curtain continued up the dome of the ritual circle, further revealing the surrounding landscape. With it, Eva could hear clashing and clanging in the background rising up and over the still howling wind.

— — —

Juliana bit her lip as the ritual circle vanished. It wasn’t gone gone. She could stare straight ahead and see the massive black hemisphere where there had once been a snowy white dome. But if she looked to the forest to the side and swept her gaze across where it had once been, she saw nothing but forest.

Presumably, that was supposed to happen. Nobody had been panicking anyway. Well, mostly nobody. Irene and a few of the others had fallen over and Saija got herself yelled at. But Vektul had said that they weren’t actually being hurt.

So she took up the solemn duty of guarding their prisoner with Serena. Eva hadn’t wanted to take the time to dump the nun off at the prison. For a good reason, admittedly. They needed to get the ritual going as soon as possible for fear of the hunter coming back and ruining everything.

Which was a very real possibility. Time was dragging on. She sat with her back against a tree, keeping both the ritual and the nun in sight. Once the black bubble touched down, she started to check her phone every so often. Since she bit her lip, it had been nearly four hours.

Someone should have asked Vektul just how long the ritual was supposed to take. Her nervousness at her mother and friends being involved had vanished entirely, replaced by boredom. It wasn’t that she wasn’t worried about them. There was simply a limit to how long she could stand around pacing while biting her nails.

“How can you take part in this monstrosity?”

“Oh shut up.”

Serena tried to add something. An agreement, by the tone of it, but it was hard to make out with how muffled her words were.

There was one person around who could alleviate her boredom—who was capable of conversation, anyway. Unfortunately, Juliana severely doubted that they would have any kind of proper discussion. So far, every word out of her mouth had been scathing annoyances about the company Juliana kept. None of which made Juliana all that inclined to respond.

In fact, now that she was thinking about it…

Juliana drew on a thin tendril of Zagan’s magic. Just a slight alteration to the fabric of reality that would keep the nun from being able to speak. To be more accurate, Juliana just wished that the nun’s open mouth became incapable of opening. Closed, in other words.

And the world complied to her wishes.

In the blink of an eye, the nun’s mouth melted away and left her with smooth skin between her chin and nose. She looked like some telepathic alien from a far off galaxy. Something the nun immediately noticed. Her breathing grew intense, heaving in and out until she was hyperventilating through her nose. Her hands were bound together by Eva’s obsidian-like blood bindings, but her fingers were still free. She brought them up to where her mouth used to be and started feeling around. The feeling quickly became more frenzied, almost digging her nails into her mouth.

Despite it being exactly what Juliana had imagined when she thought to get rid of the nun’s mouth, it was somewhat disturbing. Both the lack of the nun’s mouth and the frantic clawing at her smooth skin made Juliana avert her eyes. Serena didn’t—Juliana couldn’t actually see her eyes behind the dark visor of her ski goggles, but her head was angled in that direction. After a few moments of listening to the muffled screams coming from the mouthless woman, her discomfort grew to a breaking point. It might have been a bit of an overreaction.

Maybe she was more nervous than bored. She wouldn’t normally have jumped to such a mutilation. Even if it wasn’t actually hurting the nun, there was a point where cruel and unusual just became too cruel and too unusual. The poor nun had no mouth yet obviously needed to scream.

“Alright,” she said as she pulled on another tendril of Zagan’s magic, undoing her curse. “Just don’t talk to me. Okay?”

The nun’s lips faded back into being. The second they lost their translucent shimmer, the nun sucked in a deep gasp of air.

Juliana winced in advance, preparing for the scream.

Only it never came. Juliana squinted her eye open, watching the nun.

Her mouth was open like she had been about to scream, but had frozen with her eyes wide, staring behind Juliana.

Juliana didn’t bother to ask what the nun was staring at. She leaped forwards, past the nun and into a tumbling roll as her liquid metal armor built itself up around her. Just in time to protect her from a shower of dirt that had flown high into the air after a resounding crash behind her.

Spinning around, Juliana didn’t find herself surprised in the slightest at the armored hunter. She obviously hadn’t had the chance to repair her armor after her battle with Eva. Her breastplate was blackened and charred with a thin hole right in the very center.

Serena obviously had not moved in time despite being a vampire and supposedly having better reflexes. Too busy staring at the nun, probably. She had been knocked away by whatever the hunter had done and was bent over a tree branch a fair distance away.

Rising from a half-crouch with her fist pressed into a crater on the ground, the hunter brought herself to her full height. She turned. Lifting her fist, she took a step towards the dark wall around the ritual circle.

“No!” She drew on a tendril of Zagan’s power.

But the woman’s fist connected with the bubble before Juliana could work out how to properly oppose the woman.

As it turned out, she needn’t have bothered. The woman’s fist sunk in up to her wrist only for her to be thrown back. She flew through the air right up until she hit a tree.

Hitting the tree didn’t do much to stop the hunter. She crashed straight through the thick wood, sending splinters of bark, pine needles, and wood up into the air. A second and third tree exploded beneath her momentum before a fourth finally held together enough to bring the woman to a stop. The same tree that Serena had ended up hanging off.

The impact knocked Serena off, sending her a few feet down to the ground where she rolled for a moment before coming to a stop. Her motion didn’t cease, however. She clasped an arm over her chest. Part of her coat had torn from rubbing against the tree branch. She placed her arm over to keep the overcast sun from making its way inside.

Juliana doubted she would get much help from that corner.

“It’s a Po–”

Using the tendril of magic she already had wrapped around her fingers, she undid her undoing of taking away the nun’s ability to speak. Juliana didn’t need the hunter to have some wand that worked on Powers back at their hideout.

Though, with Zagan’s power, she could probably do something about it without any difficulty.

In fact…

At the moment, the hunter could hurt her. But tugging on Zagan’s power again, Juliana twisted reality. The hunter shouldn’t be able to touch her at all. So long as she had done it right, that was.

Even if the hunter could still hurt her, she had experience healing herself using Zagan’s power. And, better yet, it didn’t look like the hunter could really hurt the ritual circle.

Juliana breathed out a small sigh of relief. At least she wouldn’t have to worry about that.

The very second relief crossed her mind, Juliana—armor and all—just about tumbled over as a rush of wind kicked up from around the ritual circle. A tiny sliver of the darkness had lifted up, rising to just a hair’s breadth away from the ground. Gales of wind rushed out from underneath at a constant rate, forcing Juliana to shield the thin eye slit in her helmet with her arm just to fail at keeping her eyes from drying out.

A bright red light leaked out from the crack, making everything look far more bloody than it was.

In the gale of the wind, the nun was faring far worse than Juliana. Huddled up in a fetal position, the winds tore at her increasingly ragged clothes.

On the other hand, the hunter didn’t seem affected at all. Somehow, despite being thrown through three trees, she managed to move forwards, marching closer and closer to the ritual site.

Gritting her teeth, Juliana tugged on Zagan’s magic. If the ritual wasn’t finished yet, she would just have to keep the woman at bay herself.

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010.002

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“Are you insane?” “That seems pretty ambitious.”

Everyone in the clearing jumped to high alert. Everyone except for Eva. She had seen their followers through her sense of blood. Letting them know what she was up to was something of a risk, but she needed humans for the ritual. People would be finding out sooner or later. Might as well start with those she knew best.

Putting a hand on Arachne’s shoulder to calm her down—she was the only one Eva was really worried about starting anything as neither Vektul nor Srey were fighters and Catherine looked ready to run more than actually fight—Eva walked slightly closer to the ring of trees at the edge of the ritual circle.

“Alright, you might as well come out.”

Eva waited. The two in the woods were hesitating, whispering to each other. But eventually, one dragged the other out.

Serena walked out of the woods hand in hand with Zoe. The vampire looked about as nervous as she always did, which was to say not nervous in the slightest. Zoe, on the other hand, had her lips pressed into a thin line. Perhaps the thinnest Eva had ever seen.

“You knew we were here?”

“Of course I did. You could have just come out. Or asked.”

Zoe glanced down to Serena, frown on her face.

The vampire shrugged. “Hey, don’t look at me. I just said that there was a large ritual circle out here with Eva’s scent all over it. You’re the one who decided to follow them,” she said, nodding towards Eva and Catherine.

With a shake of her head, Zoe looked back towards Eva. “Please tell me you were joking just now.”

“I’m afraid I wasn’t,” Eva said with a sad shake of her head.

“But… why?”

“Someone has to try to avert the apocalypse.” Eva pointed a finger upwards as she spoke. She let it hang in the air for a moment before meeting Zoe’s eyes. “No one else is doing anything.”

Zoe clenched her teeth together, pressing her lips into a thin line once again. “I am researching.” She brushed her fingers through her hair. “I know, I don’t have much to show for it. Not yet. But soon. Someday. Eventually. And Sister Cross is working as well. I know that for a fact.”

“She has made about as much progress as you.”

“Well it’s not like there is much existing research to go off. Powers are about as well researched as fairy tales.” She paused, pacing around in a small circle. “Actually, fairy tales are probably the more researched topic.”

Eva did note the dirt around her feet being torn up. One of the shallower lines ran right through her pacing. She took special note to fix it up later. For now, she didn’t say anything and let Zoe pace.

“But summoning a power?” Zoe shook her head. Once again, she ran her hand through her hair. None of it hung down in her face. She still brushed it back anyway, tucking it behind her ear three times before finally settling down. “You can’t think that’s a good idea, can you?”

“Not really. In fact, that was why I brought Catherine here and why I didn’t say anything when you two started following us. I want a second opinion. I want to make sure nobody has better ideas. And I definitely want to ensure that this ritual does what it is advertised to do.” Eva paused and glanced towards Vektul. “Not that I think you’re intentionally distributing false information or anything. I just want to be sure.”

Vektul tilted his head off to one side. After a moment, he just shrugged.

“So I’ve brought you and Catherine here. I’m not good enough to look over a ritual of this scale. Though I have the design memorized, I barely understand what my treatment ritual is doing. Or the first version, anyway. The most recent version is way beyond me. And this,” Eva thumbed over her shoulder, “I haven’t even tried to decipher.”

Turning away for a moment, Eva blinked a short distance across the ritual circle. She picked up a large plastic tub from nearby the unfinished section of the circle and ran straight back to the surprised group. “This,” she said, dropping it at the feet of her waiting companions, “is the designs for the entire ritual circle. Each paper is marked out with a grid identification number. It’s shrunk down, but will still need a fairly sizable room if you want to lay it all out to look at.”

Catherine, who Eva stopped closest to, reached in and pulled out a single binder from the side of the tub that contained finished papers. A plastic divider separated the two halves; the finished side drastically outnumbered the incomplete portion. Catherine leafed through the binder, stopping every now and again at various pages. As she continued to look over it, a frown grew on her face.

After a moment, she carefully replaced the binder before pulling another out. As she looked through it, Serena hopped forward and leaned over the edge. She plucked out her own binder, glanced through it for less than three seconds, shook her head, and handed it off to Zoe as Zoe approached.

“Like I said, it’s shrunk down. You’ll probably not get much from any one paper. And the ones we’ve already finished with have not been sorted properly, so you won’t just be able to pull out the first three binders and have them be in any sort of order.”

“Eva… I–”

“Just think it over. Look at the ritual. Make sure that it isn’t doing anything unwanted. The real circle isn’t finished yet, so there is still some time left. But so far, nothing has really happened. Everyone has stopped trying to summon demons for the most part and there are no domains open on Earth, which probably helps a lot. However, should anything seem like it’s going to happen, we need to be ready.”

“Ready to summon a Power?” Serena said, mimicking Vektul with an overly exaggerated tilt of her head—something Vektul hadn’t stopped doing since Eva had mentioned him. “Seems a bit extreme.”

“Yeah, that’s what everyone says who I explain this to.”

“Who all have you explained it to?” Zoe said with narrowed eyes.

“Present company excluded, Juliana, Irene, and Saija. The two nuns from Isomer know about the ritual circle, but they’re not aware of exactly what it does. I’m planning on telling Shalise. Eventually. Just haven’t gotten around to it yet.”

Again, Zoe was running her hand through her hair. “I can understand Juliana and the others, even if I’m not too pleased with it. Why do the students from Isomer know?”

“Needed the manpower. The ritual is a huge project after all. And they owed me for a favor.”

“A favor? Wait,” Zoe held up a hand. “No, maybe I don’t want to know.”

“It’s nothing bad. Just me putting them into contact with Ylva.”

“That doesn’t sound like something most people would want.”

Eva shrugged and looked around.

When she had first come out, Zoe had been tense. Now, not so much. Nervous maybe. Not quite ready to run off to Wayne though. Which was something Eva wanted to avoid. Wayne clearly didn’t like her. Zoe did, at least enough to not complain too much about half the things she did. But Eva wouldn’t put it past Wayne to try to destroy the partially complete ritual circle simply to prevent its activation. Not necessarily out of spite, but simply because he wouldn’t believe in her good intentions. Or Vektul’s for that matter.

He would find out eventually. That was the risk in telling Zoe. Frankly, Zoe double checking everything might be worth having to fend off Wayne. Besides, if something big did happen and they lacked other plans, he might be a whole lot more amicable. She just needed to delay until then. Whenever that might be.

Serena, on the other hand, moved away from Zoe. She wandered a short distance away with her hands clasped behind her back, alternating between staring at the ground and the sky. Every so often, she would skip around to find herself in a new point.

Eva wasn’t worried about Serena all that much. The vampire expressed little alarm upon hearing what the ritual was for. She had been standing around Zoe in a manner that Eva would describe as protective—and Eva definitely wasn’t going to assume that she was higher in the loyalty hierarchy than Zoe and Wayne should anything come between them—but that was perfectly understandable when wandering out in the dark with several demons around. Doubly so given how close Arachne had been to jumping for their throats.

Arachne probably would have stopped as soon as she realized who they were, but there wasn’t a real guarantee of that.

Still, her presence did worry Eva slightly. She might not be worried about the ritual or its purpose, but the vampire might still tell Wayne. They were close despite their constant bickering and complaints about each other. Even if she didn’t tell him of her own volition, she would probably answer if he asked.

As for their resident succubus, Eva wasn’t worried in the slightest. Even if Catherine had protests, she was fairly powerless especially when placed next to herself and Arachne. Which wasn’t to say that Eva considered herself on par with Zagan like everyone seemed to say, merely that Catherine would yield if it came down to it. Probably. But that was assuming Catherine had a real complaint.

The way she was flipping through paper after paper, staring at them for a few seconds before moving on made her look more curious than anything. And, as Eva stood watching her, she pulled out a binder she had already replaced in the plastic tub, flapped her wings, and took to the skies. Eva watched her circle around twice before returning. Catherine flipped through the binder and removed one piece of paper, handing it to Eva a moment later.

“Segment F1-3A has an error. You drew a symbol of avarice where a shield of want should have been. They’re similar, but the symbol of avarice lacks these lines,” she said, tracing a finger across the paper. “As does your full-scale design.”

Eva lacked the wings to go up and compare for herself, but she would trust Catherine’s judgment. “I’ll make sure it gets corrected,” she said, slipping the paper into the section of the plastic tub that held portions not yet finished.

“I’d like to take pictures of the ritual circle from above, though I suppose it should wait until morning. My phone’s camera lacks good enough night vision. Even with flash.”

“That shouldn’t be a problem,” Eva said, already feeling much better knowing that Catherine would be looking over it all. Who knew which tiny mistake would be the cause of the entire universe imploding. “Though, do keep it a secret from Devon. I imagine he would freak out.”

“Devon is… quite talented with rituals,” Catherine said as she crossed her arms under her chest. “His input could help.”

There was a hint of respect in her voice. Eva hadn’t really been around the prison much in recent months, but she hadn’t realized that they had done all that much together. Perhaps the occasional ritual circle related question. Apart from that, they lived on opposite ends of the complex. Catherine stayed inside the women’s ward for the most part and Devon had his hollowed out cell block.

“The real question is not whether he could help but if he will help. Working with him, you’ve certainly noticed how curmudgeonly he can act.”

Catherine glanced to the side, making a face. “You could say that I’ve noticed. His temper switches between grudging willingness to help and open hostility at the drop of a hat. Presumably whenever he remembers that I’m a demon.”

That sounds like Devon alright. “But maybe involve him as a hypothetical. That might work. Don’t tell him that the ritual circle is three-quarters done.”

“He’ll probably figure it out.”

“Yeah, so use your judgment. I’ll trust you.”

Catherine shifted; an uncomfortable shift of her weight from one leg to the other. After a moment, she just shrugged. “I’ll think about it.”

Turning to Zoe, Eva stared for just a moment. Unlike Catherine, who was already pulling out another binder to inspect and discard, Zoe had a single paper in her hand that she had been staring at since the start. Really, Eva didn’t know what she was staring at. Any one paper barely showed anything at all. She really needed the bigger picture to get a better idea of the circle. Unfortunately, unlike Catherine, Zoe lacked wings.

Of course, she probably wasn’t really staring at the paper. It was more of a ‘lost in thought’ kind of stare. Her eyes weren’t even moving over the paper. Eva didn’t want to interrupt her thoughts, but she did need to mention Wayne.

So she interrupted anyway.

“Wayne should probably be kept in the dark as well.”

“What?” Zoe blinked twice before shaking her head. “Why?”

“For almost the exact same reason as Devon, if you were listening.”

“Barely.”

“And I don’t think he has the same kind of ritual experience that Devon has, does he?”

Again, Zoe pursed her lips. After a moment, she shook her head. “No. But I will still be telling him. Something of this magnitude…” Zoe ran her fingers over the top of her head, dragging them across her scalp. “I’m not going to keep a secret like this from him.”

Eva sighed. She really didn’t have a plan for if Wayne decided to destroy the ritual circle. Perhaps surrounding the area with blood wards would work. Of course, if he tried to teleport right into the middle of the circle, he could find himself in trouble. Trouble that would likely alienate Eva from all of her friends and companions.

Even if he didn’t, random students wandering around might accidentally stumble across the ritual circle. Which was the main reason there weren’t any wards already set up. It hadn’t happened so far—or Eva hadn’t heard any rumors flying around school about some giant ritual at least, which she assumed would happen the moment someone happened across it.

So not really viable unless she was willing to potentially hurt or kill random students, professors, and mundane people who decided to snoop about because of the tournament. Not that she thought people would randomly stumble across it. Nobody really wandered the infinite courtyard. In fact, it would probably be the event organizers who found it rather than anyone else. So far, she had really been relying on its obscure location to keep it secret above all.

For Wayne, perhaps Zoe talking to him would be for the best. Explaining everything. Maybe he would even agree to be one of the humans. Between him, Zoe, Irene, Shalise, Shelby… she wasn’t sure if the nuns would work given their implanted eye, but if Vektul gave them the okay then she would have all six. Otherwise she would need to find two more. Which might not be such a big deal.

She tried to think of all the regular people that she knew who also didn’t have bound demons. Devon was out for the same reason why she didn’t want Catherine telling him about it. Genoa and Carlos almost certainly wouldn’t agree.

Or perhaps Genoa would. She knew about Life attempting to pull Hell into the mortal realm. So long as this seemed more reasonable than other options—of which there were none—she might even help out.

Carlos, Eva wouldn’t be talking to.

Beyond them, Eva really didn’t know any normal humans. She would probably have to ask a few people from the diablery class.

“Alright,” Eva said eventually. “I’m not going to stop you, though perhaps wait. Look into the ritual yourself for a time. Then, should he have questions, you’ll be able to better explain some things he might ask about.”

“I’m still trying to sort through all my questions,” Zoe mumbled.

“And that’s just fine. You figure them all out to better prepare yourself for Wayne.”

“Oh! I have a question,” Serene said, skipping back to the group. “Is this circle capable of pulling other Powers from wherever they live? Or just Void?”

“I… don’t know,” Eva said, glancing towards Vektul.

“The design is merely what I was told to use,” he said with a helpless shrug. “If it can be modified for other Powers, I don’t know how.”

“Probably best to destroy the circle and all records of it after we are done with it then. Who knows what kind of things lunatics would try if they got their hands on the plans.”

“That,” Zoe said, finally looking up from the paper, “is something I can agree with.”

Catherine shifted slightly to Eva’s side, looking about ready to say something. After a moment, she just shook her head before giving a slight nod of agreement. “Not to mention how vulnerable Powers could be if brought to the mortal realm. Summoning Void…” She trailed off with a glance to Vektul. “I would be against it if the ritual had come from anywhere else. But if a plan is in play, who am I to deny my patron Power?”

Which was good news. If all the demons felt as Catherine did, then recruiting six wouldn’t be a problem. Srey, Catherine, Sebastian, Neuro, Saija, and one of the other demons who hadn’t bound themselves to someone. Lucy, perhaps. Arachne and Vektul had their own private positions—though she was still a little fuzzy on why Arachne needed her own circle, something she would be privately asking Catherine to investigate. And Eva, as the ‘bridge’ between humans and demons and the mortal realm and Hell, was stuck in the middle.

She almost wondered if she should bring Ylva into the loop. So far, she hadn’t mostly because Ylva was something of an oddity among all the demons Eva knew. Ylva acted more like Zagan than a regular demon in terms of temperament and personality, though with fairly different apparent goals. Eva couldn’t be sure how she would react.

Probably best to leave her alone unless she, Catherine, or Zoe came up with a good reason to do otherwise.

“But,” Eva said, turning back to Serena, “why do you ask?”

Serena shrugged. Glancing up to the sky, she said, “No real reason. But Powers are supposed to be super mysterious and unknowable right? Might be fun to ask Void some questions when you do this ritual.”

“Questions?” Eva blinked, moving slightly to lean against a tree, she crossed her arms. “What kind of questions?”

“I donno. Maybe like what does Void do all day? Void must get bored sometimes, right? Do demons have daytime television that it talks to? Do days even have meaning for something like that? Do Powers talk with other powers? What about a love life?”

Eva held up a hand, stopping the vampire in her tracks. “Do Powers even care what we think about them?”

Serena grinned, showing off her fangs. “That’s a good question too. We’ll have to ask.”

Sighing and shaking her head, Eva turned away. “So, you two will help research the ritual? I’d like to have it done and ready to go by the start of the next event. Just in case something happens.”

Knowing Brakket Academy, something was bound to happen.

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009.013

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“Construction?” Neuro asked with a frown, toying with of the golden triangles that adorned the tips of the demon’s long hair.

“Yep. Building a house maybe,” Eva said with a shrug. She couldn’t really think up anything else it might be.

Saija’s eyes narrowed to thin slits, glancing off to one side to avoid looking at anyone. Her lips curled back into a teeth-clenched grimace.

“Building?” She nudged Irene in the side. “I told you we should have done that last event. How am I supposed to build things?”

That was a good point. Something the other two demons apparently agreed with, judging by the nods of their heads. Really, even regular mages might find themselves not particularly useful. A fire mage wouldn’t have much to do in a house building contest. Unless they acted like a kiln to harden an earth mage’s structure. Really, it was air mages who wouldn’t have much to contribute.

Maybe not building houses then, but something else that still needed construction.

“For all I know, Redford is going to drop you off in the amazon jungle and tell you to survive for a week, build some shelters and hunt or scavenge for food.”

That would certainly be more exciting for viewers than some house building. Though long. Unless they streamed it on-line and let viewers tune into it whenever. Eva didn’t know how that would work with the television station, but maybe they would show a few hours a night. Or highlights from the day.

Henry crossed his arms as he glared at Eva with narrowed eyes. “And where did you get this information? We didn’t win, in case you forgot. Or did you forget which school we belong to again.”

Crossing her arms in front of her chest, Eva returned his glare. “Believe me or not. I don’t care.”

She considered taunting him for running off and having a temper tantrum when Arachne disagreed with him about the gorgon, but doing so would probably have him running off again. As she wasn’t participating in this event, she should probably leave the remainder of the team fully intact.

Though a small part of her mind couldn’t help but wonder if she could talk Anderson into swapping him out for someone else.

Juliana would be nice to have. She hadn’t signed up because of her parents, but they might have changed their minds after having seen—or participated in, in Genoa’s case—the first event. Anderson and Redford were obviously taking pains to make the tournament safe.

Given the cameras centered on the event, there were probably even more safety features behind the scenes. Redford would want to make good impressions on mundanes while Anderson wouldn’t want to frighten away prospective new students. Someone winding up mangled or dead would dissuade most normal people.

“Plan for what you want,” Eva said after a moment of silence. “I told you what I heard. Since I’m not allowed to participate, you can deal with it as you want.”

Henry took his eyes off Eva and looked over the rest of the students with a far less hostile glare. At least, far less hostile when he wasn’t looking at a demon or a human associated with demons.

Which was basically just Rachael.

Still, he reserved the majority of his ire for Eva.

And she couldn’t figure out why. Maybe he was friends with the Burnsides. Or simply had a bad experience in the past.

“There’s two weeks before the event,” he said, getting to his feet. “See if you can find something out for yourselves.”

With one last glance around the room, he snapped his notebook shut. Henry moved out of the room before anyone else could even stand. He barely managed to keep from shoulder-checking Eva on his way past.

Though only two days had passed since the night of the first event, Henry had grown far more hostile. During the feast, he had alternated between glaring at her and avoiding eye contact entirely. She could understand him being upset that Brakket Academy had lost, but he was apparently the only one.

At least, the only one of the competitors. A few regular students had alternated between blaming her or Randal.

More so Randal. His dormitory door had been vandalized with several scathing messages about his heritage and bound demon alike. Something about how a demonic elf should have been faster.

As if they would have done better.

The vandalism only contributed to his now obvious depression.

Even now, Randal sat with his head resting on his knuckles, staring at the ground. He hadn’t spoken once during the entire meeting.

Eva wasn’t sure what to say to him beyond her words at the feast the night before. But he didn’t have to participate in the next event, so he should be able to take some time to himself to get sorted out.

As for the next event, the vampire had so far not come up to Eva to beg for blood or to renegotiate their deal. As such, she was torn between whether she wanted Brakket to win or to lose. Losing could take some heat off Randal. Depending on how and why they lost, it might knock Henry down a peg as well.

On the reverse side of things, winning was generally better. Not to mention the potential amusement if the demon-majority team had lost the predominantly destructive event only to turn around and win the constructive one. The only two humans who could participate and didn’t have bound demons were Henry and Irene, and Irene was heavily associated with Saija.

Of course, like Saija had said, demons really weren’t great at building things. She was a succubus. Her talents lay in manipulative magic, though her raw strength could come in handy.

The other two demons, Sebastian and Neuro, Eva didn’t know half as much about. Sebastian sat in his chair, stirring a cup of tea he had procured from somewhere with an ornate silver spoon held in his gloved hand. He had a faint smile on his face as he stared off towards Henry’s vacant seat.

Neuro’s eyes swirled in thought. Literally. They were a brilliant green rather than the usual demonic red. He was supposedly smart, but Eva hadn’t been in a position to confirm it thus far. Maybe he would come up with something.

Unless he was thinking about something entirely unrelated to the tournament. That was a decent possibility as well.

Meeting apparently adjourned, Eva turned and started away from the small conference room that they had been using for tournament related business. She wasn’t the only one. Rachael had been out the door almost as fast as Henry.

However, she stopped as she reached the door. A completely impulsive thought took hold. A somewhat dangerous thought as well.

“Irene,” Eva said, “might I have a moment of your time before you run off to wherever?”

She sat up straight, offering a slow nod of her head. “Did you need something?”

“Just a little training exercise I thought you might be interested in trying.”

“Training?” she asked with a frown. “For fighting?”

Eva shook her head. “You’re an earth mage and I’ve got a project I’m working on that needs an earth mage.”

“Juliana isn’t helping you?”

“She is, but maybe it will help train you for this event. It isn’t a problem if you don’t want to do it.”

Irene’s frown deepened. She crossed her arms, staring at Eva as Eva moved to the side to let another student out of the room.

Saija stood up, strutted over to Eva, and walked around her in a short circle. She hummed to herself as she looked Eva up and down. When she stopped circling, she was a bit close for comfort.

Eva glared at her the whole time. It wasn’t that she disliked Saija, but the succubus was a bit much sometimes. Eva didn’t know what kind of relationship Irene and Saija had in private. Ever since the demon hunters had attacked, the two had been nearly inseparable. Really, she didn’t care what they did.

So long as she was left out of it.

And, at the moment, she really didn’t need Saija’s face quite so close to hers.

“What are you plan–”

Eva snapped her hand up to Saija’s chin, clamping her mouth shut. “Saija. You can ask your questions from a respectable distance. If you want to go with us, just ask.”

Releasing her with a slight shove, Saija sulked back to Irene and desperately tried to look like she wasn’t hiding behind the human.

Really, it had been months since they started going to school. Yet she was still thinking that Eva would bite her head off at the slightest provocation? Sure, she had just grabbed her jaw. But she hadn’t hurt Saija.

Thinking more, if they likened her to Zagan, maybe it wasn’t such an outlandish thing to do. Even knowing that Zagan wasn’t going to permanently hurt her, Eva still wouldn’t want to be on his bad side.

“Go with you?” Irene said, still frowning.

“Yep! I’ll show you,” Eva said, starting towards the door.

She paused as a thought occurred to her. As sensitive as she was to cold, Eva had barely felt anything the other night during the event. The entire ward had to have been heated. Just because it hadn’t snowed yet didn’t mean that it wasn’t cold. Eva solved the problem through heating spells, but not everybody was a fire mage.

“Ah. You might want to bring a warm coat,” Eva said with a smile.

“Alright, we’re out here without anyone else,” Irene said as she nearly tripped over a stray branch despite the light spell Eva had thrown out for her benefit. Saija caught her, keeping her from falling to the ground. “You avoided mentioning exactly what you need help with. I assume it was because other people were around.”

Eva turned with a smile, walking backwards through the rough brush. “Thanks for having the tact to not ask about anything.”

“Well I’m asking now.”

“We’re almost there.”

Irene stopped moving. “Eva,” she said. “You’re dragging us out here in the middle of the night and being awfully creepy about it. I don’t want to get involved in anything big again. I’ve had enough as it is.”

Eva sighed, stopping as well. Rather than answer right away, she craned her head back to stare at the sky.

“The night you fought the monsters that came out of my dorm room, those purple streaks appeared in the sky.”

Looking up to the sky as well, Irene let out a soft groan. “I knew it. This is something big.”

“They’re a connection between the mortal realm, Void, and Life itself. Two Powers and a battlefield.”

“Right. Way too big,” Irene said, backing up. “Eva, I’m–”

“Involved no matter what you do. Life is trying to pull Void into the mortal realm. Most likely in an attempt to make Void vulnerable. Unfortunately, Void will be bringing along all of Hell. Maybe Hell will take the shape of another planet or galaxy, or maybe it will catastrophically merge with the mortal realm, or simply unleash all the demons of Hell onto Earth. I don’t know.

“One thing is certain, it probably isn’t going to be good for us. Especially because Life’s reason for attacking Void seems to be because Death and Void are allied. Death might be the next target. Something, believe it or not, that would not be good for anyone.”

Eva took her eyes off the sky, looking Irene in the eyes. “So we’re going to bring Void over without the rest of Hell ahead of whenever Life wanted to do it in the hopes that Void will be able to seal away Life. Or at least remove the mortal realm from the playing field,” Eva said with a smile.

Irene didn’t say anything.

Neither did Saija.

After waiting a full minute, neither had so much as moved. Eva felt her smile start to slip. If Irene got scared and went around telling people, things could go poorly. She didn’t want to kill Irene, so maybe Serena could perform a little memory trick to make her forget.

Except Serena wasn’t in on the ritual’s secret either.

Eva bit her lip before smiling again. “So how is that for a sales pitch?” she asked, trying for a small bit of humor.

“Terrible,” Irene said, voice flat. “But you’re serious, aren’t you.”

“Unfortunately.”

Irene’s hands shot to her hair where she started tugging. “Why me?” she moaned.

“Well, because you’re an earth mage and Juliana–”

“I just wanted to come to school, learn some magic, work on my studies, and other normal things. I wanted to become an enchantress, maybe own a shop. I’m not a mage-knight or some thrill-seeker. And now the world is ending?”

“Apocalypse has been used to describe the situation by some of the people who know, yes,” Eva said with a reluctant nod of her head. “But we’re trying to avoid–”

Irene sank down to her knees, getting her pants covered in dirt, and cupped her hands to her face. She wasn’t crying… but she obviously wasn’t taking the information half as well as Juliana had. Of course, Juliana already knew half of it. The only thing she hadn’t known was Arachne’s mission to bring Void over to Earth without Life’s involvement.

At her side, Saija fluttered a pair of wings that hadn’t been out a mere ten minutes ago. She hovered over Irene, bobbing from one shoulder to the other without quite knowing how to help her troubled friend. Only when she placed a hand on Irene’s shoulder did Irene finally move.

She glanced out of her cupped hands, looking at Saija with a half-hearted glare. “Did you know about all this?”

Her head whipped back and forth in a definite negative. “Sounds neat though. I’ve never seen Void. Do you think Powers are cute–”

“I used to think I was the only sane person who went to Brakket,” Irene said, face back buried in her hands. The low volume of her voice combined with her hands forced Eva to take a step closer to properly hear her. “I was right,” she said with a groan.

Irene popped up, brows furrowed. She stuck a finger in Eva’s chest. “You can’t just say that we’re on the verge of apocalypse all nonchalant-like.”

“Ah huh.”

“‘Ah huh,’ she says.” Irene turned to glare at Saija. “‘Do you think a Power is cute,’ she says. Do neither of you have any sense of gravity?”

“Of course I do,” Saija said with a disarming smile. She spread her wings ever so slightly. “Every time I fly, gravity is there to drag me back down to Earth should I lapse in my gliding.”

Irene stared, gaze deader than Ylva’s. Without even a sigh or a simple shake of her head, she turned and started off in the direction they had been coming from.

Saija gave a questioning glance towards Eva.

Eva had her own frown leveled at the succubus.

Saija let out a little noise from the back of her throat before moving straight to Irene’s side.

“Did I say something wrong?”

“No. Not really,” Irene said without inflection. “I just need to go have a mental breakdown. Don’t worry about me.”

Eva blinked in front of her, hands up to stop her from going forwards. “I don’t suppose I can convince you to have your breakdown later? There are still a few things to go over. Like who it is safe to talk about this with. Also I’m sure Juliana would–”

“Safe to talk about it with?”

“Well, we don’t want to cause a panic now do we?”

“So you do have a sense of how big this is,” Irene said, hands on her hips.

Eva just smiled, ignoring the panic on Irene’s face. “Come on,” she said. “Juliana should be waiting for us. She’ll probably be mad at me for being so late again, but oh well.”

— — —

Zoe paused as her companion stopped to sniff the air. A vampire’s sense of smell wasn’t good for much aside from the scent of blood. A fact that had Zoe instantly on edge.

“Something wrong?” she asked, hand closing around the hilt of her dagger.

“I don’t think so,” Serena said. “Just a familiar scent heading off towards the forest again.”

“Eva?”

“Yep. Along with a demon who isn’t Arachne and someone else.”

Zoe let her arm drop to her side with a small sigh. Eva and demon likely meant it was nothing to be worried about. Especially because Serena had smelled Eva off in the forests on occasion ever since she arrived. They were probably just training for the next event.

Still, she couldn’t help but ask. “Who is the someone else?”

Serena shrugged her shoulders. “Don’t know. A human. I haven’t really interacted with anyone aside from you and Wayne, so everyone else sort of muddles together. No real distinct scent.”

“Could you find them again if they were in front of you?”

“Probably. Why?”

“Just curious,” Zoe said, continuing off towards Wayne’s classroom.

“If you’re really curious, I’m sure you could just ask Eva,” Serena said, skipping up and around Zoe until she was walking backwards down the hall. “Last time I asked, she told me that she was working on a weather ward. Something to keep rain and snow out. I wonder if she’s still working on that.”

“Weather ward,” Zoe repeated with a frown. Maybe something to erect around her women’s ward. She had confessed a certain distaste for snow in the past. Or it could be homework for Chelsea’s class.

Either way, it didn’t sound like anything to worry about.

Zoe knocked on Wayne’s door, waiting just long enough before opening it for Wayne to grunt out an answer.

“Come in,” he said. He didn’t even look up as the door opened. A boiling pot of orange liquid bubbled underneath a stooped over Wayne. His eyes never left the pot even as he gathered up a fistful of powder and sprinkled it in the liquid.

The orange liquid turned almost completely clear. Enough for Zoe to see the cast iron insides of the cauldron.

Which was something that struck Zoe as odd. Not the potion. Finding Wayne tinkering with potions wasn’t strange in the slightest. The fact that he was using a cauldron over an open flame was the real oddity. Modern potionwork almost exclusively used modern tools. Flasks and burners that could be found inside mundane chemical laboratories.

“Do you ever wonder why a potion designed to shrink things doesn’t shrink what it’s made in? Or the flask it is stored in, for that matter.”

“Potions are more your specialty than mine, but I would assume that it is because potion making equipment is enchanted to resist magic.”

“That is more of a safety precaution than anything else,” Wayne said, tapping the edge of the cast iron cauldron. “This thing isn’t enchanted in the slightest. No growth, no shrinkage.”

Zoe stepped closer to the pot, looking it over with sharpened senses. “Perhaps the potion making itself imparts some protection while it is being made and shortly after, keeping it from acting until poured onto something unprotected. Have you tried it in regular glassware?”

“Not yet.”

“What brought on this line of thinking?”

“Watching the first event, actually.”

“Eva’s basilisk golem?”

He gave a slight murmur of agreement as he dropped a crystallized essence of water into the potion. The clear liquid expanded instantly, going from half-filling the cauldron to an inch short of the lip.

Zoe actually took a step away. If that was some shrinking solution, she did not want it spilling onto her.

“Growth and shrinking potions are not very useful,” Wayne said, almost more to himself than anyone else in the room. “You can’t shrink a suitcase as the clothes inside don’t shrink. You can’t embiggen a cube of wood and carve out a house because the wood will revert after a time when the magic runs out. As such, I haven’t worked with them often. Seeing that basilisk grow just sparked my curiosity.”

“There are other potions that should affect the flasks,” Zoe said slowly. “Essence of Luminosity, for instance. It doesn’t usually make the glass glow afterwards.”

“Never really thought about it before. Or had assumed it was because of the enchantments. But watching some of Spencer’s potion spill onto the ground got me curious.”

He took a pinch of leaves and dropped them into the pot, turning the clear liquid to a milky white. Only then did he finally take his eyes off the potion.

“Ah, Serena. You’re here too.”

“You didn’t notice?” the vampire gasped, clutching at her chest like she had been shot before collapsing into one of the empty classroom seats.

Wayne didn’t so much as blink an eye, instead turning to face Zoe.

“I assume you’re here about Anderson’s request?”

Zoe nodded. “I haven’t mentioned it to Ylva yet–”

“Good. Don’t. As…” he trailed off, curling his lip into a nasty smile. “Nice as she seems to be, having her anywhere near children seems to be the worst possible idea that man could have come up with.”

“You were at the hospital at the time, but she has been around the students before. She disguised herself as a little girl.”

“I don’t believe that.”

Zoe just shrugged as she leaned against one of the tables in the room. “It’s true.”

“Well I’m against it,” Serena said. “And I doubt the other vampire would like having a minion of Death running around, trying to rekill us both.”

“I’m actually more worried for the Isomer students. Ylva has not been kind to the Elysium Order.” Zoe shook her head with a sigh. “Unfortunately, I think Anderson intends to speak with her regardless of my choice in the matter.”

“When you suggested he bring on security guards, I had been hoping he would not go the route of Turner. Let’s just find some nice retired mage-knights and throw them in front of him before he wanders around to all the demons in the area and begs for their help.”

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